Exclusive: Babel ‘s Rinko Kikuchi


One of the four separate segments in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s global drama Babel involves a punky deaf-mute girl from Tokyo named Cheiko, who is feeling lonely and unloved after the suicide of her mother. For most moviegoers, it’s the first time they were able to see 26-year-old Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in action, but anyone who attended the New York Asian Film Festival in the past few years may have caught Ms. Kikuchi’s small roles in a few of the festival’s most memorable films like Katsuhito Ishii’s Taste of Tea. (It will open in New York City next month!)

Critics have been raving about how Rinko is able to carry her quarter of Iñárritu’s latest film, and now, she’s been nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice award for her performance. The way things have been going, she’s also likely to be dressing up to walk the red carpet come Oscar night, and after a few attempts, ComingSoon.net finally had a chance to talk with this talented young actress about the role.

ComingSoon.net: I understand you just had a birthday, so “Happy Birthday!”
Rinko Kikuchi: Oh, thank you!

CS: I’ve actually seen some of your Japanese movies, but how did Alejandro find you for this role?
Kikuchi: He got me through auditions, but which films did you see that I was in?

CS: I’ve seen “Funky Forest”, “Taste of Tea” and “Survive Style 5,” all small parts I guess.
Kikuchi: What did you make of [“Funky Forest”]?

CS: It was very weird, but I liked “Survive Style 5” a lot, that was good. They’ve played a lot of them at the New York Asian Film Festival. Had Alejandro seen any of these movies or did he find you through your agent?
Kikuchi: Actually, my friend informed me that there was auditioning going on, so I asked my agent to contact them and find out the details, that’s how I got involved.

CS: What did you know about the part or the character beforehand?
Kikuchi: I received a videotape from Alejandro where it was one of the first scenes in the film where the girl and the father are talking in the car. I received a video of that scene, and I assumed I was to do that scene in the audition. Before I went in to audition, I did some research on my own, and I actually went to the deaf-mute school and tried to spend some time with those girls.

CS: And you learned sign language for the part? How long did that take?
Kikuchi: Actually, I was learning it throughout the auditions as well, so I guess it took a little less than a year maybe.

CS: What did you make of the idea of Alejandro, this Mexican director, coming to Japan and trying to shoot part of his movie there with Japanese actors in Japanese?
Kikuchi: The first thing I thought of when I heard of him coming to Japan and shoot the film was obviously this issue of language. I think for obvious reasons, it’s one of the most important elements in communicating with the director, and for the film, as well. I understood the sign language more as a body language, and it was really about using your hands in gestures and expressing the emotions. In that sense, it was easy for me to digest, and Alejandro would basically check every single detail about what’s being said, what kind of language the translated script was written in, and what specific language the communication was that was taking place on set. He basically laid out the whole map where he was aware of how the communication was taking place. It was a very, very interesting experience in that sense.

CS: Did he work mostly with a Japanese crew or did he have a lot of his own people there, as well?
Kikuchi: Well, Alejandro brought from his usual crew, but most of them were Japanese crew.

CS: Were you aware of the other segments in the movie while you were doing your part or did he just give you your part of the script?
Kikuchi: I had no idea what the other segments were about or what they were.

CS: After you got the part, how did you feel about having to carry this portion of the movie, since you hadn’t done a role of such weight and significance? Were you nervous about that?
Kikuchi: During the one-year audition process, before I knew that I was going to get the part, there were actually moments where I already felt that the character Chieko was emerging inside me. By the time I received the news, I actually felt this whole experience was already worth experiencing and trying. When I did receive the role, I was very, very happy, but I was at the same time, like you said, very conscious and constantly thinking about how to give life into this role. I also understood that it was a big responsibility, but in some ways, the whole audition experience was so intense that I knew that I could do the role and that it would come out okay.

CS: You have a pretty intense nude scene towards the end with an older male actor. Were you nervous about having to do that and did Alejandro leave that until the very end of the shoot?
Kikuchi: Yes, I do think that whole scene was scheduled towards the later part of the production, but that scene we’d done over and over in the audition process, so Alejandro and I were very much aware that that scene was going to be a very important scene in the entire segment of the Japan section. At the same time, as far as being nude, I think being nude is like a sacred state of human nature, and I consider it very, very beautiful to be nude. I actually thought it was going to be a beautiful scene, so there was no reluctance or anything like that on my end.

CS: What did Alejandro do or say to make you, or even the older actor, more comfortable when doing that scene?
Kikuchi: To begin with, the actual crew was minimum while we were working on that scene, and Alejandro would constantly communicate just the two of us, he would just pull me aside on the set, and he basically made sure that every element was working for me. For example the actor who played the policeman, he was very nice in general as a person, so he tried everything he can to make me feel comfortable, and I think Alejandro knew that. Alejandro tried to do everything he can to make that scene work both on and off set.

CS: Do you think that your segment is representative of what kids or teen girls are like in Japan today?
Kikuchi: Well, I think that young people like that exist everywhere in the entire world, but Tokyo is kind of a place that’s overflowing with information and things are constantly changing. I would say that there are many different kinds of young people in Tokyo living there. I do think the world depicted in “Babel” does represent a part of the world exists in Tokyo, but not necessarily everything. You do see all these young people hanging out in that (it’s called) J-Pop café in the film. There’s no question that the film depicts certain aspects of the youth culture in Japan, but ultimately, I think what was important was the director’s vision of how he sees the world in Japan, as well. We tried to understand that as well as depicting the real situations that exist in Tokyo.

CS: The movie has gotten a lot of attention for your performance. Are you excited about doing all of the red carpets for the award shows or is it all a bit overwhelming?
Kikuchi: Yes, I was very surprised and it is overwhelming. I’m constantly thinking that I have to do this or that or all these other things, but I’m also trying to have fun as much as I can, although everything is kind of crazy now. That’s what I’m trying to focus on, just trying to have some fun through this.

CS: Have you had a chance to meet your awards rival Adrianna yet, even though you were in separate segments of the movie?
Kikuchi: Yes, I’ve already met her and we’re always doing press together in L.A.

CS: And there’s no competition between the two of you even though you’re both nominated for many of the same awards?
Kikuchi: No, no, of course not. We really respect each other and love each other, so there’s nothing like that.

CS: Have you been able to learn any English while doing all of the press for the movie?
Kikuchi: (without her translator) I’m learning English right now!

Look out for Kinko on the red carpet at the Golden Globes on Monday, January 15 or try to catch Babel, which is still playing in select cities with a possible re-expansion in the coming months.